Essays in Idleness


Books for a dollar

I am working now, up here in the High Doganate, on the accumulation of what I count as my sixth library. The first five had to be dispersed, for one reason or another, which means that many of the books around me have been bought several times. When possible, I obtain the same edition and printing of a book I once owned, and still value, hoping to fool myself into believing that the same copy has been with me all along. For while I am an ardent reactionary, in the main, in some respects I am just an effete conservative, who enjoys the familiar, and does not like anything to change.

This is the story of my life: rebuilding libraries — the last of which will probably be consigned to a landfill by my heirs. But I’m inspired, as the Scotch, by the little spiders, who will resume the weaving of their webs no matter how the winds blow, the tempests fall, or rude little boys put sticks to them. Their activity might seem hopeless. But they are spiders, they know what a spider is about, and they will never despair.

For the spider must catch gnats to eat; how can he surrender? The bibliophile’s web traps food for thought, but the principle is the same. And with this one advantage over the spider, that, confined to a cell from which all books were removed, I could still spend my day in imagination, wandering through pages remembered from the past.

At present, I am permitted to walk the streets, and furnish my own quarters. I exult in this freedom, and effetely hope that it can be maintained.


We often complain about the decline, or collapse, of Western Civilization (which can exist only insofar as it is Christian), and perhaps make ourselves tedious on the point. We should not always be acerbic, and today I should like to hail one good thing. It is to note our abundance. How impressed my ancestors would be if told it is a time when anyone can make a thousand dollars, from pogey if not from work, save two, and borrow perhaps five thousand more against little cards that are freely available. They would be astounded by our wealth and ease. (The trick with facts, as every journalist knows, is in their selection.)

Imagine, further, what a great age in which we now live; for within my own lifetime books, which once fetched a pretty price from knowledgeable dealers, may be found (if slightly mildewed) in the barrows of flea markets and the bins of charity stores, each for a dollar; rounded down if you pick a few. Sometimes I have found my own former possessions, with my name still in them from my earlier life — books I had been forced to sell for five or ten or twenty dollars apiece — which I could now retrieve for a small handful of base-metal change. Or books which belonged to my book-buying rivals, now sadly deceased.

Take Wolfson’s Philo, for today’s example. It is in two volumes, and I distinctly remember a brief scene at a college book sale many years ago, when two scholars vied for it with their sharp academic elbows. One had laid hold of volume one, the other of volume two, and no third volunteered to render the Judgment of Solomon. On Tuesday I found both volumes, equally neglected, in the dollar rack outside a second-hand store that prefers fresh paperbacks, and will take “hardcovers” only if they have retained their lurid dust-jackets. The tattoo’d child at the cashpoint inside interpreted the set as one volume only, and thus charged me 50 cents for each half. He did not notice that the name of the late beloved A. Robinson Orr was signed on the fly-leaf. Why would he?

Nor did I vex him by explaining that Harry Austryn Wolfson, late professor of Hebrew Literature at Harvard, was a learned expert on Spinoza, whose purpose in expounding Philo Judaeus — that beacon of first-century Alexandria — was to show the background condition of religious faith common to all the philosophers (Jewish, Christian, and Islamic) through the intervening seventeen centuries. Through Philo, Wolfson showed, gracefully set up, what Spinoza devoted himself to taking down: a sophisticated trust in Scripture. In his attempt to prove the consistency of Judaism with the finer Stoic teachings, Philo had plumbed rich veins of allegory (a kind of rabbinical Edmund Spenser) and … well, a lot of other things. Leafing through, one realizes that one has shamefully belittled the significance of Philo; how, in some sense, we may see the “Middle Ages” unfolding in his work, co-terminously with the Life of Christ.


Actually, I parted with two dollars, for I had also spied a copy of The Milk of Paradise. This last volume of (the twelve of) James Lees-Milne’s diaries was in fact a shiny, new-looking book, with its dust-jacket intact, so that at first I didn’t see it. But the store sorter had decided it was worthless, notwithstanding. No colour photographs, and from a glance at the blurb, somewhat highbrow and elitist. Perhaps the thing had fallen open at one of Lees-Milne’s sneers against “coffee-table” books, remainders of which were the store’s founding raison d’être. The sorter could have no idea how much entertainment was obtainable, from the running commentary on our own times.

Consider, for instance, this entry from the 1st of September, 1997:

“The grieving over Princess Diana is beyond all belief. Radio and telly given over, and today’s Times contains not one paragraph which is not devoted to her. Now undoubtedly she was a great beauty, and had star quality of the film actress sort; also seems to have had a genuine caring side. Q. rang yesterday to ask what I felt. I said the tragedy seemed pre-ordained; and dreadful though it was to say, it would be recognized as a mercy in the long run. Q. admitted that to see her with old or mortally ill people was a revelation; yet it was terrifying that the world regarded her as a saint. People did not realize that few of her staff could abide her, and that she was odious to the Prince ever since they became engaged. She was shallow and devious, cunning as a vixen, determined to do him down, motivated by malice and spite. She took no part in his interests and his intellectual friends, never read a book, and was totally uneducated and stupid.”

How wonderfully poised and just — though written in a moment when, as a friend calls to say, anyone critical of the Princess in the London streets risked being lynched.

To be fair, there were lynchings too, sometimes, in the streets of old Alexandria, of those whose views varied from the opinion of the pinguedinous mob. But some truth has been preserved, in the mouldering pages of a few printed books, which may still be found in the bins, for a dollar. (Or ignored, for free, as long as they stay posted, in the memory clouds of the Internet.)


We are reliably informed that Larry, the cat, will remain in No. 10, Downing Street, as David Cameron and his family move back to their home in Oxfordshire, after their six-year stint in public housing. He (Larry) has proved a first-rate mouser, and is able to hold the media in thrall. The incoming prime minister, Theresa May, and her husband (some investment flak with Deutsche Bank or whatever in the City) will need Larry’s steady paw in his quasi-Cabinet position, as the Exterminator-General for small rodents; which, as one might expect, abound in proximity to power.

I never liked the fellow (Mr Cameron). Gentle reader might refer to the works of the Daily Mail pundit, Peter Hitchens, for my approximate view, on him and most other British politicians of the current “Blairite” generation.

Larry, who technically “belongs” to a civil servant in the Cabinet Office (cats are quite indifferent to whom they technically belong), holds what is, like so many others in Britain, an office that originated in the Middle Ages. The first Prime Mouser (as we might call him today) is lost in the mists of time; but it is known that, for instance, Cardinal Wolsey’s cat played a distinguished role in the background of the English Reformation, trying to distract her nominal “owner” from his work on the annulment papers for King Henry VIII. She was a fine papist cat, who unfortunately went down when the Prelate of York fell out of favour, and seems to have been dissolved with the monasteries. Somewhere in my files was a secret history of Cardinal Wolsey’s cat, Feronia, drafted decades ago in the manner of Procopius. Alas it, too, seems to be lost.

All cats are papists, incidentally, by old arrangements going back to Egypt. The ancient Romans shared the high Egyptian regard for these animals — the only species to which they accorded the liberty of their temples. It was a wise pagan custom which, as some others, was retained by the Holy See, down at least to the aptly-named Ratzinger, often photographed with pussycats. As to his successor, I don’t know what to say. The Spanish expression is, I believe, dar gato por liebre.

Tradition, which sometimes counts in England, recognizes the feline office at its most fundamental in the expression, “The cat can look at the Queen.” (Cats, I should mention, disapprove of corgis; or corgwyn, to be more correctly Welsh.) They were adjuncts usually to the Treasury, but later also to the War Office. Not even Feronia was a breed cat, as I understand. The tradition is tabbies, usually male, and by preference, strays. Larry, for instance, was obtained from the Battersea animal shelter.

It should be explained to North American readers, who are often under-informed, that the seat of the Chancellor of the Exchequer is No. 11, Downing Street — a house that communicates with No. 10. It has larger and better residential appointments, so that First Lords are in the habit of appropriating those quarters, leaving the Second Lords to make do with the more cramped facilities at the better address. Cats, of course, sleep wherever they want, and are no respecters of persons.

“Rufus of England” was the first media star in the twentieth-century line. He insinuated himself in the time of the Labour prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald, about 1924. So called when in No. 10, he was better known in No. 11 as “Treasury Bill.” No mere mouser but an accomplished rat catcher, he formed the habit of leaving the corpses of his victims at Mr MacDonald’s feet; but on finding that the prime minister removed them to a trash bin, adjusted to delivering them there. With their usual fiscal recklessness, the Government granted Rufus an official subsistence, and an unnecessary title as Chief Mouser (which has republican overtones). Cats do not need titles, and never use them.

They (cats) are more usually associated with the Conservative ministries. An exception was “Nemo,” who arrived with Harold Wilson. A breed cat, in breach of tradition (a male sealpoint Siamese), he was greeted with contempt by the neighbourhood tabbies, who attacked him frequently.

“Wilberforce” was the longest-serving Downing Street cat-lord. By way of restoring custom, the next prime minister, Mr Heath, introduced him as a kitten from the Hounslow RSPCA. When grown, Wilberforce proved able to dominate large dogs, as well as prime ministers, three of whom he outlasted. Mrs Thatcher was in the habit of bringing him sardines, a tin of which she once obtained in Moscow during the period of detente, to the amazement of Politburo members, none of whom understood cats, and the need to keep them politically onside. But Mrs Thatcher understood cats very well.

“Humphrey” we associate with John Major. Both were underestimated. In fact he was appointed under Mrs Thatcher, who finally approved his annual budget of £100 as a wise expenditure, noting that the clowns who preceded her had been paying £4000 to a “pest control professional,” who had never caught one mouse.

A black-&-white stray of winning charm, natural dignity, and occasional pomp, Humphrey narrowly missed compression under the tire of Bill Clinton’s heavy, armour-plated Cadillac. (The visiting president was impeached shortly after.) He was also targeted in a smear campaign by the British press, who alleged that he was a serial killer of robins in the Downing Street garden. Mr Major rose gallantly to his defence in the House of Commons, and it was later proved that the Daily Telegraph had made up the whole thing. There was then a premature announcement of Humphrey’s death. He had only wandered, as he often did, a mile away, to the Royal Army Medical College in Millbank, where he was soon identified, and ceremoniously returned. Indeed, Humphrey enjoyed these little adventures, of which there were apparently several, for he considered his demesne to include St James’s Park.

But the real scandal of Humphrey’s tenure was in no way his fault. After eight years in office under the Conservatives, he was suddenly faced with the ailurophobia of Cherie Blair. (The term is from ailouros, the Greek for “cat.”) She may have been allergic, and I will guess she was, for there is a most unpleasant look on her face when holding Humphrey for the cameras. To this she was obliged, to dispel rumours that he had been quietly put down. As with Mrs Wilson before her, who once suffered septic shock after being scratched by Nemo, we had another unhappy cat/mistress relationship.

For the truth is that cats do not like Labour prime ministers, and cannot abide their wives.

Now that Mrs May has taken the office (of prime minister), we will see what Larry thinks of her. For the moment he is biding his time.

Parliament of the three ages

There is a lovely alliterative late mediaeval poem in what seems the north Midlands or south Yorkshire tongue: a dream-sequence debate between brave striding Youth and glumly self-serving Middle Age, conducted in a wood, among the streaking shafts of a brilliant May morning. Youth seems to be winning, by Oxford Union rules; until the two speakers are brought short by the intrusion of Old Age. He comes as a death’s head on the both of them. The dreamer wakes, to a homily, in which (of course) we hear:

Vanitas vanitatum & omnia vanitas.
That all vayn & vanytes & vanyte is. …

And gentle auditor (not reader, for the poem was meant to be recited and performed) is left with his instruction:

Ite ostendite vos sacerdotibus.
Go shryve you full stilly & shew yow to prestes.

But that was hardly all. For in the meanwhile we were shewn the Nine Worthies, or we to them; and were touched by the breath of that distant spring — by waggynge of leues, by the mud that dagged the coat of a spaniel, by the buzzing gnats — the glory of this world, and the sweat of our labour. All to one end, at the moment of waking, in the final disclosure of Old Age:

Dethe dynges one my dore, I dare no lengare byde.

The very Catholic Shakespeare, too, came up with such a line, to conclude his song upon “Crabbed Age & Youth”:

Age, I do abhor thee; youth I do adore thee!
O my love! my love is young;
Age I do defy thee: O! sweet shepherd hie thee,
For methinks thou stay’st too long.

Where, in six words of the minstrel, the vision of youth withers.

This is what, I suppose, makes Christianity so grim, to those who are trying to avoid it; or actually to suppress it, as we do these days. There is that death’s head within the Church: the unpretty aspect of the Crucifixion, that needs to be put out of thought and mind, as we troll for fresher scapegoats. Rather, the glib apologists today, as all the happy-faced before them, wish to strip the Corpus from the Cross; to make it, as they say, “the Cross of the Resurrection,” and skip the painful bits. For a mangled body is in such poor taste — the blood might drip on your shoes.

In the olden time, before the Reformation, they never skipped that bit. Instead they kneeled before it, and repeated: “This is my blood.”

Nor made old age attractive, as did not the skilled composer of The Parlement of the Thre Ages, whoever he was. (One version, here.) He would have understood, perfectly I think, what I can only half understand, through what I have seen in the nursing homes — where our own unwanted old are tucked away, and boxed in unvisited despairs, till some cry out for the terminal syringe. Dethe will take each of them, in his turn, whether it should be by nature or by murder; and their children, too, all will come to dying in their course.

I am in the peculiar position of often liking mediaeval verse better than its editors do. I am struck by how often the scholars apologize for their texts, as if the age of the manuscript was its only excuse; how often they seem not to hear the music, nor enter into the imagery — which rises from a silence, not a background noise. Instead, they enumerate the “symbols” from an academic checklist.

Life itself is more vivid to those, who apprehend the transient, chastely; who know to the bones within their fingertips that all the “useless beauty” of this world shall pass; shall be destroyed, and irretrievably lost. And that it must be; must be felt and seen, in the beauty beneath the ineffaceable stillness.

The good Samaritan

God knows, — or I hope He knows, — I try to avoid subtlety in these Idleposts; that I mean to focus exclusively on what is obvious; upon things that are as plaigne as daeg. So too, in any pieces I write elsewhere (such as yesterday, here). For sure, I am not one of these “German philosophers,” from the time since Albertus Magnus. (Who had the same “barn door” policy.) Give me the broad side of a barn door, and I will try to hit it. Of course, I often miss.

As an addendum to my link, let me mention a fairly clear point about the Parable of the Good Samaritan, which was told in church this morning, the Eighth Sunday After Pentecost. I would hope gentle reader knows the story. It is Christ’s answer to the question, Who is my neighbour? It is the man beaten, robbed, and left crumpled in a ditch — quite regardless of anyone’s race, creed, or colour.

Notice that the good Samaritan stops, himself, rather than just reaching for his cellphone and dialling “nine-one-one.” That he attends to the injured party, directly. That he takes the poor man to an inn, and pays for this shelter, out of his own wallet. That he makes only a deposit, promising to pay the balance on his return — prudently to assure that the man will be well treated. (This is something I have noticed in many Lives of Saints: that they are canny, that they are not suckers. That they do know how the world works.)

Mother Teresa of Calcutta is, as I have mentioned before, a great heroine of mine (from sight as well as reading). She took upon herself a considerable number (countless thousands; millions and counting if we include her sisters) of what could be called “good Samaritan” activities; done almost invariably out of public view (and never in public view by intention). She also lectured people from time to time, imparting to them a constant instruction: “Do it yourself!”

Our contemporary way is to seek publicity, and lobby. Bucket after bucket of sanctimony is poured, along with “symbolic gestures.” We demand that other people show some responsibility. We demand that the government take care of it. We demand that the State provide welfare services, with mountainous overheads, and then, that they “make the rich pay.” This is what makes us feel good about ourselves.

We do not do what, for instance, the cops in Dallas were doing the other day: running towards the gunfire to protect innocent black people from getting shot. It was their job, of course, but also an affirmation of who is their neighbour.

Now consider, yea, this excerpt from the long and windy July Prayer Intentions of a certain Pope Francis, forwarded to me by an unhappy priest:

“That political responsibility may be lived at all levels as a high form of charity and amid social inequalities, Latin American Christians may bear witness to love for the poor and contribute to a more fraternal society.”

All this drivel about inequality; about “love” for an abstract socio-economic group; all these cant phrases from the twisting, serpentine Marxist past. One tires of it.

Bread, cheese, & ale

The current definition of a “ploughman’s lunch” (up here in the High Doganate) is a large and crusty bread roll from the oven, a pretty mound of butter, two generous chunks of cheese (one always cheddar), pickled onions and, on principle, an aluminum cylinder of ale, translated into a handled, white ceramic jar. A cold veal sausage from Benna’s (Polish ethnic shop up the way) I would count as a festal variation; to be avoided on Fridays. Aha, and I almost overlooked the tomato chutney. (Modernist touch.)

My understanding, from Piers the Plowman (his Crede), is that bread, cheese, and ale are the staples of a manorial diet; and this is also my understanding from Cobbett’s Cottage Economy, five centuries later, in those passages where he is not rebuking potatoes. (Home-baked bread was the freeman’s glory, in his considered view; potatoes were indecent and unrighteous — unsuitable even for the Irish.)

In summer, all heating wants to be inclosed, and in the absence of a thick clay oven in my wall, I make do with this metal electrical contraption that came with the apartment. But the bread, if fresh enough, could also be dispensed at room temperature.

When run out of chutney, perhaps, a modest bowl of unheated baked beans, from the Heinz corporation. Or in their seasonal prime, gorgeous fat sliced tomatoes (under a sprinkling of salt and herbs) — unknown to our mediaeval ancestors, but leapt upon the moment they had landed from the New World.

There are many variations on the ploughman’s lunch, which, according to the Wicked Paedia, was invented only in the 1950s as a marketing gimmick by the British Cheese Bureau, just as cheese finally came off ration. (The Germans, who did not have the blessing of a Labour government, were of course eating cheese to their hearts’ content soon after the War; but now I am getting distracted.)

In Canada today, we also have Kafkaesque dairy regulators. They do not ration cheese, but content themselves with making it unnecessarily expensive — at minimum, doubling the retail price — while assuring a consistently bland, low, homogenized standard for the masses. To which those masses are now trained and accustomed, in their characteristic obsequiousness. (I could get very distracted.)

Bread, cheese, and ale. … That is what I wanted to communicate today, in the muggy heat of an Ontario midsummer. I hope that I have done so effectively.

“Small beer” for the kiddies, by the bye, when they come in from the fields, for they are themselves small, slight, rather puny, and yet unready for the full siren of a larger ale — which might divert their return to the berry harvest. Small beer at breakfast; small beer at lunch; a little stronger to send them off to bed.

Alas, my own small kiddies have growed. And too, I have sowed no berries.

The Chilcot Report

The Chilcot Report (here) is 2,600,000 words. The Bible in English is less than 800,000. As there are time constraints on all mortal creatures, I think any gentle reader who hasn’t already done so, should read the Bible first. It ranges more widely, is more interesting, better written, better focused on various moral and spiritual questions, and benefits from divine authority.

On the other hand, Sir John Chilcot’s summary of the Report is only 3,000 words, and will reward reasonably close attention. I have just read it twice; the second time to confirm my first impression, that the Report is unlikely to contain anything I did not already know. I already knew that, for instance, the USA and UK invaded Iraq without the explicit encouragement of the full United Nations Security Council; that they did not find deployed “WMD”; that Western intelligence agencies are a shambles; that politicians make serious decisions anyway; that they are influenced by political considerations; that the budget-cut UK military was overstretched; that the planning for post-war Iraq was as inadequate as all other government planning, in war and peace, these last six thousand years; that it was over-ambitious, ditto; that the UK occupation of Basrah and environs was something of an under-equipped farce; and so forth.

On the plus side, the allies did succeed in their principal intention, by deposing Saddam Hussein and his murderous regime, inside a month. This is worth remembering sometimes. While the Chilcot Report nods empathetically to the families of the British fallen and wounded in that war and occupation, and to the courage of the soldiers themselves, it can only restate what the liberal media told them before the liberal media lost interest: that they were used and abused. This must be discouraging.

Blair is not accused of dishonesty. He is rather accused of reaching different conclusions from the authors of the Chilcot Report, in their hindsight of seven to fourteen years. But as I say, after reading the summary, I can expect nothing in the Report that could not have been said even before the invasion, and which for the most part was said, with plenty of publicity. The continuing belief that “international law” is reducible to decisions by the Security Council reveals a ludicrous naiveté. At best, we are reminded that the government bureaucracies on which Blair (and Bush) relied were, with the singular exception of their militaries, ignorant and incompetent beyond words.

But again, this isn’t news.

Many, including mainstream politicians of all stripes, supported the invasion at the time, because they expected it to be an unqualified success, and they wanted to be “on the right side of history,” or at least of the next election cycle. And many of these fairweather friends turned promptly with fortune, presenting themselves as victims of lies and deceptions; which was itself a bald and atrocious lie. Those who have admitted to personal misjudgement are so few, that I cannot think of an example. The rest use documents like the Chilcot Report, to resume their flogging of the dead horse.

That I despise these people is not news, either.

The magnanimous gesture

There is a minority school of political thinking — perhaps it is confined to the High Doganate — which holds that the British Empire and Commonwealth became doomed on the 6th of December, 1906. This was the day that “responsible government” was granted to the Transvaal. On 7th June of the next year, the same was extended to the Orange River Colony (soon to be called, unctuously, the “Orange Free State”).

At the time, it was celebrated as the “magnanimous gesture” — the most liberal and enlightened act ever performed by a politician. It was Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman’s signature contribution to history: the restoration of self-government to those bands of Dutch-descended trekkers, who had gallantly stood the whole weight of the British Empire for a brief moment in the Boer War, before being utterly smooshed. It was what in turn made possible the negotiation of the Union of South Africa (1910–61), as a dominion or confederation modelled roughly on Canada and Australia. It was what then made possible the political domination of that Union by the Afrikaaner minority, and ultimately their apartheid policy; and the fallout from it, to the present day.

Sir Henry, or let us call him “CB,” the radical shipowner from Glasgow was, as I should explain, the first “prime minister” of the United Kingdom. (Before his accession to the Liberal Party throne in 1905, the job was called First Lord of the Treasury.) To contemporaries, CB was known as the one member of a cabinet of all the talents, who happened to lack talent. Which is why, I suppose, he rose to the top, and had he not made the mistake of dying in 1908, might have dominated British politics instead of H.H. “Squiffy” Asquith down the long slide across the glittering Edwardian façade, into the gas trenches of the Great War.

Perhaps I should also explain that “radical” in those days meant something different from what it means today. It meant radical free trade, along with Home Rule for Ireland, and the first cautious moves towards poor relief, pensions, and the welfare state. But then as now it also meant “enlightenment” and “idealism” and the “good guys” of media celebrity; and the dots between that and later, more degenerative forms of progressivism, are not impossible to connect.

Gentle reader will be aware that my own habitual prejudice is for the Tories, or let’s call us the Bad Guys Party; and that I look back with grave regret on the loss to history of the rotten boroughs and toff manipulation of the House of Commons in the bad old days before Wellington and his like were obviated.

Mistakes had been made in the conference of responsible government on the Canadas and Australias, too; we do not look for perfection in this world. But the radical experiment of empowering “the natives” — and thus inevitably, one group of natives at the expense of all others — became dear to the liberal mind. Along with that, or rather guiding it, was the settled liberal habit of thinking big.

These Essays in Idleness are not meant to burgeon into multi-volume annals (I leave my minions to do that; unfortunately I am fresh out of minions at the moment), so that I now propose to skip wingfully over a terrifying canyon of detail. Suffice I say the great “magnanimous gesture” did not, as Tories feared at the time, inspire the Boers to immediate opportunism. Rather it touched their hearts, and won their fleeting, qualified loyalty to the British Crown. The opportunism came naturally, with the cunning political exploitation of their ascendant place within the new Union.

South Africa was not ready for self-government, and especially not ready to be formed into a large multicultural federation. The result was a huge disaster, superficially masked by immense mineral wealth.

Yet South Africa became the model in turn for similar acts of Imperial magnanimity, through a half-century or more — in which the Empire was surrendered, piece by piece, to other multicultural federations, and expressly into the hands of small tribal vanguards of the politically adept — left in control of all other peoples. (Having often as not first been tutored in socialism at the infernal London School of Economics.)

We had, in little time, the forging of a new nation from Pretoria, from out of the mythology of the bearded Voortrekkers in their ox-wagons, whose twin principles were escape from the humanitarian notions of the soft English settlers at the Cape, and ruthless battle against the interior hordes of native “blecks.”

I suppose every nation is founded upon some mythology of flight and liberation. This is all slightly poetic so far as it runs, but “issues” arise when one national or racial mythology collides with another. Put all the scorpions in the same bottle together by an act of Union, and eventually one fat scorpion emerges.

The price to be paid for that typically Liberal (and, liberal) magnanimous gesture was paid by others: by the English of southern Africa and the great majority of “blacks” and “coloureds.” Later, by the South African example, it was to be paid by all the hundred millions of incidental peoples in India and Pakistan, for instance, through the machinations of a Congress Party and a Muslim League. Indeed, it was the mythology expounded by a liberal South African barrister, one M.K. Gandhi, that led to another grand constitutional imprudence; and through it to the sorry end of a British empire that had delivered to so much of the world a de-politicization, a live-and-let-live, in which not dozens but thousands of vaguely definable nations could find their own paths to development — each at its own pace, free of the imposition of centralized bureaucracy, and secure from the threat of constant invasion from their neighbours.

In the end the rewards for political “magnanimity” accrue only to the magnanimous party, and then only temporarily. The price must be paid by many, from near to far away in space and time.

I mention this because it seems to me that the story of Western Civ, through the last century and more, could be told as a sequence of ever more giddy and expansive “magnanimous gestures,” and of the real consequences of them.

With Layard to Ninevah

Each summer, with the intention of adding leisure to the spirit of idleness, I choose an historical topic for general reading. Or rather, it is chosen for me some time in late May or early June, when some book or books fall into my hands, from my peregrinations about the flea markets and second-hand shops of Greater Parkdale.

This year the signal was provided by a lovely old copy of an enthralling memoir by the late Right Honourable Sir Austen Henry Layard (1817–94), his Early Adventures in Persia, Susiana, and Babylonia. (One may read along, here.) My copy washed up with a clump of other tomes carrying the bookplate and signature of a certain Colonel Stucley — I assume among the Stucleys of Affeton in Devonshire, who are also in possession of what physically survives of the twelfth-century Hartland Abbey. It was the very last of the innumerable religious houses dissolved by that monster of depravity, Henry VIII, half a millennium ago. (I have not inquired, however, lest the Stucleys want their books back.)

It is now forty-five summers since, at age eighteen, I stood myself in the ruins of Ninevah — across the Tigris from Mosul in post-modern Iraq, the seat of Christian Assyria. Gentle reader may be aware that the Assyrians, Yazidis, Armenians, Turkmen, Shabaki, and for that matter, a portion of the Arabs who once lived around that town have been slaughtered or exiled over the last two years by the Daesh. The self-styled “Islamic Caliphate” has also made a show of demolishing Mosul’s remarkable Museum, and the more celebrated ancient monuments, starting with the purported tombs of Jonah and several other Old Testament prophets.

How one wishes that the French and British, rivals for archaeological glory from the early Victorian age, had succeeded in floating more of the treasures they had uncovered, on great rafts down the Mesopotamian rivers to Basrah and the sea — and then by ship to safe new homes in the Louvre and British Museum. That was the heroic age of “Orientalism,” when under the burning sun, and the noses of Ottoman administrators, and in the face of Arab raids and depredations — goaded by popular excitement over the recovery of deep Biblical history — the lost kingdoms and empires of the Near and Middle East were being rediscovered. Not only the tireless spadework, but the ingenious decoding of ancient tablets found in subterranean libraries of clay, extended our detailed knowledge of the human past by thousands of years.

This was a gentleman’s contest, and I am struck by the way, without rules or treaties, the French and the British (later joined by Germans, and eventually Americans, Poles, Italians, and even Canadians) peacefully recognized each other’s stakeholdings and claims, and honoured each other’s adventurers and scholars. So much of what we now reflexively condemn as “European Imperialism” was conducted at a level of civilization that is unimaginable today. We ritually sneer at digging practices that were primitive and inexact, forgetting that our own “modern methods” were being devised by these men, as they went along, starting only from rumour and wild surmise.

We have now, thanks to them, a vista over ten thousand years, to a time when human beings were a rare and endangered species, before towns or villages or farms. About the time our Western ancestors used to associate with Adam and Eve — the fifth millennium before Christ — we have suddenly a whole human world along the Euphrates, the Diyala and the Tigris; the extraordinary facts of the Ubaid and Sumer. In a rapid blink of geological time, we have Semitic, Hamitic, and other peoples, spreading their fields, their works of irrigation, their roads and their laws by hereditary overlords. (In the time since Layard we have discovered scattered, fragmentary remains of still older “cities”; yet only by a few millennia.)

The Assyrian Empire, for one, rises and falls, rises and falls and rises from the twenty-fifth century BC, to its final collapse at the end of the seventh, leaving a people like those who succeeded the Romans, with the memory of order, and the principles of productive agriculture. They, too, were Christianized in their course, and many to the present day continue quite recognizably Christian, in the shadow of Islam.

Our post-modern habit is to glibly despair, and fickly surrender to any pressure of “events,” often brought on by our own irresponsibility. Iraq is one huge case in point. We cared for one media moment and then, experiencing difficulties, we packed up and turned away, leaving people we had rescued to another hideous fate.

In my summer reading, I am trying to reassemble in my mind the fragments of my knowledge of Mesopotamia, acquired piecemeal over decades. Beyond history, I think of it as a remedy for despair. Even were my fascination restricted to archaeological research, so much is unscathed. The destruction of the Daesh is itself shallow and piecemeal: my Layard (pronounced as “Laird” incidentally) found in multiple locations that he had to trench down only twenty feet to yet another rich store of artefacts. They in their millions will stay buried to some happier time; and the current barbaric tyranny will pass at the surface. We can have no idea what is to come, even in this world; for better, for worse.

Among my mottoes is the observation of the poet Wallace Stevens, that “all history is modern history.” That is why I like to look back thousands of years; and at this moment have, with the aid of a few books, been able to reimagine a time, four thousand years ago, when the traffic on the Tigris, the canals and royal roads, is so thick with merchants that we have complex traffic regulations in the ancient cuneiform.

Our own generation is one among hundreds, and our own conceits are as fatuous as any that might have been encountered then. Far from being “the end of history,” our time is among the passing scenes. We are, or each of us soon will be, contemporary with all humankind; and our “progress” is not towards any historical goal, but in each soul, to salvation or damnation.

Un canadien errant

Today is once again Dominion Day, as it is no longer called up here in “the True North strong and free” — as it is still called, but with irony. I like to enter my protest annually.

In Toronto this year we now celebrate the “Canada Day” weekend with three big parades: Trans Pride today, the Dyke March tomorrow, and the grand Pride Parade on Sunday. Meanwhile there will be the throb of heavily amplified funk bands, paid for with my taxes; and a Sudanese Rap festival at City Hall. There will be other celebrations of Multiculturalism (any culture that is not natively Canadian). But there is only so much room in my head for what I read on posters.

One recalls the remark of the late immigrant George Jonas, after one publicly-funded multicultural performance: “I left Hungary to escape Communism, but even more to get away from Gipsy Dancing.”

The Canadian folk song, “Un canadien errant” (Ian and Sylvia version, here), was written after a rebellion in Lower Canada, going on two centuries ago. Some French Canadians found themselves exiled to exotic countries such as Vermont, and Australia. They looked homeward with nostalgia, to the old (very Catholic) Quebec; and recalled the fate, too, of their fellow countrymen banished generations before from Acadia.

In fact the older Acadian hymn, still known among the “francophone” survivors in our Canadian Maritimes, is a variation on the eighth-century plainsong of Ave Maris Stella, sung by preference in Latin. (There is a lovely anecdote in some album notes I have somewhere of broadcast types trying to get the choral inhabitants of St-Antoine in New Brunswick to sing it in French for their cameras; and they refused, such was their loyalty to their actual traditions.)

Un canadien errant: we have achieved today a kind of inverted national unity, between French and English, as everyone still attached to that old bag of a country we both called “Canada” — as it was before the Martian invasions of the 1960s — shares in the sense of an internal exile. Wherever we are, we find around us a Canada that does not resemble the one in which we were raised, and with which we were contented.

Next year will be the sesquicentennial of the proclamation of that Fair Dominion, in the British North America Act of 1st July, 1867. That Canada had many flaws and foibles, which we may also recall with a dripping nostalgia. But when asked to stand, she stood. For she had also many virtues, and did not deserve to die.

My thoughts turn also east this morning, to Newfoundland, which lost the “best of its best” in the mud, blood, and futility of the Somme trench offensive, launched one hundred years ago, on 1st July, 1916. Altogether at least 57,000 were killed and maimed, among the British forces who thrust themselves into the German wires; by far their largest bloodletting on a single day, in the course of history so far. So great a stream, that even to criticize the allied generals is pointless. For all Europe had embarked on the ultimate, post-modern, voyage au bout de la nuit.

Un Chrétien errant: from knights-errant, to the most spectacular, heroic, and obscene acts of self-destruction, only modestly echoed in our domestic Canadian experience. It is Friday, now: a day for fasting and atonement; for the observation that we have got what we deserved, or so much less than we deserved, by replacing Christ in our hearts with the vanity of our progressive human wishes.

And farther east, one’s thoughts wander to Heaven’s Gate in Jerusalem Wall.